The distinguished British novelist and traveller gathers in the holiday for the holly-and-ivy league with affection, neatly turned information, and a certain appropriate merriment, occasionally aided, more often undermined, by an enormous number of full-color glace illustrations. Predictably there are splendiferous spreads of decorative Madonnas from ages past; plenty of those primary color Victorian scenes of jollity; and innumerable sketches from the nineteenth century washed in ""nostalgia"" off-pink. For the most part the illustrations bear no immediate reference to the text, which surely deserves better. With grace and spirit Mr. Sansom swerves into the polyethnic and sectarian origins of Christmas; the many variations and evolutions of traditional feasts and customs; dabs and diblets of seasonal prose and poetry; today's frenetic nightmare of empty wallets and office saturnalias (a not surprising evolution); and above all the pervasive spirit of the holiday, the promise of mystery and glittering, even ominous, presences. By a constant reference to human need, Sansom concludes that in other times and ours ""the purpose of the whole show is to make life as it is usually lived stop for a bit. Among emblems of its regeneration."" Which sentiment makes this all worth while. Some gold coin in a polyfoam wrapping.